Tag Archives: differentiated instruction

Key research findings about Differentiated Instruction

A model of differentiation like Carol Ann Tomlinson’s (click here for more information) contains numerous instructional strategies which may be employed independently or in concert and in many possible combinations. This makes such a model very difficult to research and evaluate. Saying that, below are some fairly recent findings that I found interesting, and I hope you will, too.

Tiered ability grouping combined with differentiated learning materials increases the gap in achievement between lower and higher ability students.

Lower ability students’ achievement is enhanced through collaboration with higher ability classmates.

Schofield, J.W. (2010). International evidence on ability grouping with curriculum differentiation and the achievement gap in secondary schools. Teachers College Record, 112(5), 1492 – 1528.

The concept of ‘learning styles’ is insufficiently clear or evidenced, and therefore should not be a deciding factor when differentiating instruction.

Landrum, T.J., & McDuffie, K.A. (2010). Learning styles in the age of differentiated instruction. Exceptionality, 18(1), 6 – 17.

Differentiated Instruction has a positive effect on student engagement and motivation.

Konstantinou-Katzi, P., Tsolaki, E., Maletiou-Mavrotheris, M., & Koutselini, M. (2012). Differentiation of teaching and learning mathematics: an action research study in tertiary education. International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology, 44(3), 332 – 349.

Educational technology shows promise as a means to make the differentiation of instruction and provision of individualised formative feedback more feasible and practical.

Scalise, K. et al. (2007). Adaptive technology for e-learning: principles and case studies of an emerging field. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 58 (14), 2295 – 2309.

Many teachers report that they lack “the time, the skill and the will” to utilise DI strategies. This situation could be ameliorated through support from curriculum developers and publishers of educational materials.

Hertberg-Davis, H. (2009). Myth 7: Differentiation in the regular classroom is equivalent to gifted programs and is sufficient: Classroom teachers have the time, the skill, and the will to differentiate adequately. Gifted Child Quarterly, 53, 251-253.


Loop input: A valuable teaching or training strategy

First off, I want to thank Tessa Woodward for the idea of loop input. She introduced the concept in a 1986 article in The Teacher Trainer journal and articulated it again in her 1991 book, Models and Metaphors in Language Teacher Training: Loop Input and Other Strategies.

Since reading about this training strategy, I have experimented and found it to have the distinct advantage of making the content of professional development workshops highly memorable.

So what is it? In short, with loop input the message of the training and its means of delivery coincide. This is best understood through examples, and in this post I would like to present a couple that I have developed. This has been done before, for example in this entry on John Hughes excellent blog elteachertrainer. However, the additional contribution I would like to make is to provide examples beyond the language teaching profession. Below are two examples of loop input for trainers of all disciplines.

Example 1: An opening activity to introduce the topic of thinking skills

I was tasked by a secondary school to provide a staff development session on the topic of developing students’ thinking skills. When I was writing the materials for this session, I decided that I needed a dynamic, interactive opening activity that would also serve to introduce the topic. My goals for this activity were mainly to engage the participants, but following its completion I wanted to be able to provoke initial reflections on different ways of thinking. This would then lead into more detailed consideration of the ways of thinking that are needed for success in different school subjects, e.g. history or mathematics.

As I was searching for inspiration, I recalled an entertaining language activity in Jill Hadfield’s Intermediate Communication Games that I had used many times in ESOL lessons and had always proved a winner. It is called Detective Work and is a card game designed originally to practise reporting past events. Students work in small groups, turn up one card at a time from a pile, and discuss the clues to the murder that are on the cards. In the process, they should use several verb forms.

I adapted Detective Work in two ways. Firstly, I changed the context of the murder to the school in which I was leading the professional development session. Seeking approval beforehand, I made one of the vice-principals the victim and one of the teachers the perpetrator. This was the cause of some hilarity in the session. Secondly, after the task was completed and the groups had all solved the murder mystery, in plenary I posed the question, “How did you solve the crime?”. This led to a discussion of the distinctions between deductive and inductive reasoning. Having just directly experienced deductive reasoning themselves, teachers appeared not to confuse it with inductive reasoning, as could easily happen. Moreover, sometime later teachers from this school remarked upon that task to me. Their recall was partly due to how much they had enjoyed playing the role of detective and competing with other groups to solve the murder. My hope is that they also recalled the message of the activity.

Example 2: A complete development session on the topic of learner autonomy / self-directed learning

My overall goal for this whole-day staff development session with 70+ teachers at a secondary school was to help teachers grasp the importance of scaffolding the process by which students become more independent. I also hoped that the outcomes of this session would dovetail with earlier professional development at this school on the topic of differentiating instruction.

So, instead of leading a conventional training session, which typically would include input on research findings from me followed by discussion work on how to apply those findings in the school’s distinct learning environments, I opted to give the participants more freedom of choice.

At the outset, I helped teachers to synthesize a plausible working definition of “learner autonomy” from several that had been sourced from the literature. Then, I provided eight possible learning objectives for the session and invited teachers to select two or three that were most relevant to their individual needs. They also selected the sequence in which they would try activities designed to bring them closer to their chosen learning goals. These activities had been designed as self-access materials with accompanying instructions. The teachers were aware of a prescribed, overall time limit and managed their time accordingly.

At the end of the time limit, teachers came together and reflected on whether they had chosen learning objectives wisely, what they had actually learned, and whether they had managed their learning appropriately. Participation in this process led participants naturally to the apparently paradoxical conclusion that independent learning still needs to be guided by teachers, at least until students’ metacognitive awareness has developed sufficiently.


I have found loop input to be a useful addition to my training strategies repertoire. It is not always appropriate, but sometimes combining the message and the process is potent and memorable.

Hadfield, J. (1990). Intermediate communication games. Nelson.

Woodward, T. (1986). Loop input – a process idea. The Teacher Trainer, 1:6-7. Pilgrims.

Woodward, T. (1991). Models and metaphors in language teacher training: Loop input and other strategies. Cambridge University Press.

Can Differentiated Instruction lead to Self-Directed Learning?

My question in this entry is whether Differentiated Instruction (DI) can be justified for the opportunity it offers to kick-start and scaffold the process of becoming a self-directed learner.

Differentiated instruction (DI) comprises a set of instructional strategies that teachers employ selectively to address the diverse learning needs of students. For a more complete account, kindly click here.

DI is controversial. For example, consider this quotation from Colin Everest: “Differentiation is just another pressure meted out by managers… Apparently I must use a variety of methods at every turn and I must present every topic through a variety of methods and approaches.” It can create an extra burden for teachers and so needs to be justified with compelling evidence that it is a worthwhile investment of teachers’ energy and time, and compares favourably with alternative approaches in terms of impact on learning.

However, leaving that debate aside, I propose that DI may merit consideration because of its relatedness to Self-Directed Learning (SDL).

In adopting DI, a teacher proactively plans varied approaches to…

  • what students need to learn,
  • how they will learn it, and
  • how they can express what they have learned

…in order to increase the likelihood that each student will learn as much as he or she can as efficiently as possible.

(Tomlinson, 2003)

By analogy, I contend that, in becoming self-directed a learner takes charge of…

  • what s/he needs to learn,
  • how s/he will learn it, and
  • how s/he can express what s/he has learned

…in order to increase the likelihood that s/he will learn as much as s/he can as efficiently as possible.

My portrayal of SDL is not too distant from Knowles’ (1975) definition of it as “a process by which individuals take the initiative, with our without the assistance of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.”

In both DI and SDL, the element of choice is central, and informed choice at that. The difference is that in DI, it is the teacher making choices, and in SDL it is primarily the learner’s responsibility.

To make effective choices, the teacher or learner needs to be aware of the learner’s…

  • readiness to learn at particular levels of challenge,
  • degree of interest in learning topics,
  • background factors such as culture, gender and educational heritage, and
  • (more controversially) learning styles.

Following the learning, there is reflection and evaluation by the teacher and learner, and adjustments to future learning are made as a consequence.

I envisage teachers using DI in the early years of instruction, with the teacher making their decisions transparent to learners, followed by progressive transfer of control to learners as the students advance through their school careers. Perhaps in the last years of secondary/high school, the learners may be making most of the decisions about their own learning, thus exercising metacognitive skills prior to entry to higher education or the workplace.

Here is a very simple depiction of what I am imagining:


Do you think this is worthwhile exploring or researching? I welcome reactions….


Everest, C. (2003, February 18). Differentiation, the new monster in education. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/education/2003/feb/18/furthereducation.uk4

Knowles, M. S. (1975). Self-directed learning: A guide for learners and teachers. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall/Cambridge.

Tomlinson, C.A. (2003). Differentiating instruction for academic diversity. In J.M. Cooper (Ed.), Classroom teaching skills. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Differentiated instruction (DI) – a strong rationale, but does it really work?

“We do not teach a group, but thirty separate people.  Because of this, the problem of mixed abilities in the same room seems absolutely natural, and it is the idea of teaching a unitary lesson that seems odd”. (Rinvolucri, 1986)

Rinvolucri’s realization is a common one. In fact, advocates of DI go further, suggesting that it is not just abilities that vary between learners but also degrees of interest and learning styles. All of these variations, it is argued, beg a considered and positive response from the teaching profession. The movement towards catering for all learners also gains support from the fact that in many countries equal access to educational opportunities is enshrined in law.

DI defined

Differentiated instruction is an attempt at a systematic response to learner differences, a framework to help teachers move away from ‘teaching to the middle’. Tailoring lessons for the middle band of students in a class results in some students being over challenged, some under challenged, some unable to gain access to key concepts, and many demotivated. By contrast, with differentiated instruction the aim is to arrange lessons so that all students progress towards desired learning outcomes but reach them in ways that are personally suitable. Lecturers and teachers try to make it possible for all learners to acquire course content, make sense of ideas, and develop learning products that are compatible with their learning profiles.

Historical development of DI

Differentiated instruction is by no means a new phenomenon. Teachers have always practised some degree of differentiation simply by noticing which students require more or less challenge and by asking them different questions. But as a systematic response with a ‘package’ of strategies it is fairly recent. It has been around since the 1980s when it was introduced for the sake of gifted students, and it has received fresh impetus with the move to include students with disabilities into general education classrooms. The cultural make-up of classrooms has also become very diverse with the presence of immigrants and international students. In the United States’ public school system for instance, differentiated instruction has been applied at all levels for students of all abilities. Moreover, it is now an accepted part of pre-service training for teachers in many parts of the world, especially North America, Europe and Australasia.

Supporters of DI

Differentiated instruction has a number of proponents. Key writers on the subject are Susan Winnebrenner (1992, 1996) and Carol Ann Tomlinson (2000). The former writes about particular types of learners, e.g. those with learning difficulties, whereas the latter provides a particularly clear overview. Tomlinson’s book – How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms – is available from the ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) in the USA.

Evidence for the value of DI

Tomlinson claims support for her version of differentiated instruction by drawing conclusions from research into teaching and learning:

  1. Learners must make sense of what teachers seek to impart, and this process is influenced by prior knowledge, interests, beliefs, learning styles, and attitudes about self and the place of learning. (National Research Council, 1990)
  2. Learning takes place effectively where knowledge is well-organised, students are actively engaged in the learning process, a variety of testing instruments are employed, and students feel secure and have a sense of belonging to their learning environment. (National Research Council, 1990)
  3. The degree of challenge must be just enough to push learners slightly beyond their independence level. (Vygotsky, 1962)
  4. Motivation to learn increases when students are interested in what they are trying to learn. (Piaget, 1978)
  5. People learn in different ways influenced by factors such as brain architecture, culture and gender. (Delpit, 1995; Gardner, 1983; Sternberg, 1985)

The implications, suggests Tomlinson, are that teachers need to provide learning experiences that encourage students to work in their preferred fashion, are motivating, and challenge them appropriately. Additional support for differentiated instruction comes from classroom examples and testimonials from satisfied students and convinced instructors. However, empirical validation of the full model of differentiated instruction is rather lacking. It is an area that warrants future research.

Introducing DI to Schools: A Hong Kong Case Study

I assisted with action research conducted by teaching staff at Hong Kong secondary schools from 2007-1012. The school leaders were intrigued by DI because the approach appeared to be consistent with their institutions’ mission statements such as “[School name] educators should try to handle each one in the way she is made.” Following a series of training workshops to introduce the approach, teachers were given freedom to experiment in their classrooms for one academic year after which principals and vice-principals observed lessons.

The DI strategies that teachers found more immediately useable were as follows: varied questioning, tiered activities, concept-based teaching and minilessons. It was observed that diagnostic pre-assessments were employed insufficiently at first, but when they were introduced, the following strategies became more workable: curriculum compacting and flexible grouping. As peer feedback became common practice in the school, other strategies became practical, namely peer mentoring and jigsaw activities.

Question for teachers

In your experience of using DI, has it really had an impact on learning and grades?


Delpit, L. (1995) Other people’s children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. The New Press.

Gardner, H. (1983) Frames of Mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. Basic Books.

National Research Council (1990) How people learn: Brain, mind, experience and school. NationalAcademy Press.

Piaget, J. (1978) Success and understanding. HarvardUniversity Press.

Rinvolucri, M. (1986) Strategies for a mixed ability group. Practical English Teaching, Vol 7/1.

Sternberg, R. (1985) Beyond IQ: A triarchic theory of human intelligence. CambridgeUniversity Press.

Tomlinson, C.A. (2000) How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms. ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development). LB3061.3 Tom

Vygotsky, L. (1962) Thought and language. MIT Press.

Winnebrenner, S. (1992) Teaching gifted kids in the regular classroom. Free Spirit Publishing.

Winnebrenner, S. (1996) Teaching kids with learning difficulties in the regular classroom. Free Spirit Publishing.